The Manzanita is moored in Positano. She is 9 metres long, has a Philip Stark interior and sleeps four. The harbour master, Antonio, who has his pick of the boats when they’re not chartered, always chooses the Manzanita to sit on and gaze at the stars when he’s on night duty. There is something supremely elegant about her lines: she has a grace the others lack. If she were a girl out with a group of friends, she would be the one everyone noticed.
When he’s working during the day though, he spends most of his time sitting on a small plastic chair at the foot of the narrow stone steps that lead down from the town to the port. Antonio’s office consists of an oblong black metal box he stores under the chair. Here he keeps the records of who has paid, who needs fresh water, and who requires help when berthing. Some boat owners don’t ever seem to get it right. The French couple for example, from Conca dei Marini. How long had they had their little Ron Holland designed boat? Ten years at least, and every time there is a panic. If anyone needs a skipper they do, but they are too proud to hire one, or maybe too mean.
“I think they enjoy the drama,” his wife says as they eat on the terrace of their small house tucked away in the back streets of the old town. “Maybe their lives are dull.”
“Dull? How can your life be dull when you’re as rich as they are?” Antonio replies, tearing a piece of bread in two and mopping up the remains of the Puttanesca sauce in his bowl. “Dull is sitting in that port day and night.”
His wife nods. She knows as well as he does that he doesn’t mean it, but it isn’t the done thing for a peasant to enjoy his lot in life.
Antonio goes to bed early. Tomorrow two English men are coming to charter the Manzanita. Luckily Massimo the skipper will be with them. In Antonio’s experience, there is only one thing worse than an Englishman in charge of a boat, and that’s two of them.
The two men have known each other since they were eight years old and they arrived on a chilly September morning to a new life at Lambert Hall, a small prep school in rural Yorkshire. Lambert Hall is in a place that SatNavs can rarely find and that seems to have its own microclimate, which is always at least five degrees colder than anywhere else in England. Suddenly their cosy bedrooms at home were replaced with a stark dormitory full of other boys; their mother’s cooking substituted with mass-produced school food and instead of their mother’s cuddles and love there was a rather dour Yorkshire woman called Jackie who was head matron and shared among the 200 boys.
There is not a human emotion they haven’t gone through together. From fear to triumph to cold to hunger to exhaustion and relief, the boys experienced them all collectively. There is also not a sport or a subject they haven’t competed in from cricket, football and rugby to Latin, History and Maths. At school, an exam result was not complete until they knew what the other one had got. If one of them scored a goal, the other redoubled his efforts.
But although the competition is fierce between them, they are always united when faced with an outside enemy. It had been that way from the very first miserable, rain-sodden, homesick term at prep school and continued in the same vein when they went on to public school together. They remained best friends and closest competitors. Their whole lives they had been racing against each other.
This year they are celebrating their 30th birthdays. A milestone Rupert suggested they should mark with a three-day boat trip, which he would pay for. After all, he is an investment banker working for Goldman Sachs. Tom had gone into what Rupert calls ‘the arts’, by which he means any career outside finance, so hardly makes any money at all.
So when they get to Positano on a cloud-free Thursday morning and are greeted by the harbour master Antonio along with Massimo, the skipper, Rupert is already ahead in the race.
Of course Tom doesn’t openly acknowledge this. He thinks it’s jolly generous of Rupert, even if the trip rather conveniently coincides with his actual birthday. Their female companions, who had not met each other before the flight from London to Naples the night before, have no idea of the undercurrents in play; patterns and paths formed over several decades of friendship that determine the men’s behaviour.
In fact the two friends don’t really understand it themselves but it is as inevitable as breathing.
“Welcome to La Manzanita,” Massimo smiles broadly. Maria, who is there with Tom, is immediately reminded of Farmer Oak, who when he smiled “his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”
He reminds Annika, the half-Swedish, half-Italian model Rupert has brought along “in case we need a translator” of her first boyfriend, a lumberjack from Malmö called Sven.
Massimo is one of those rare Neapolitan Italians with a mass of curly blond hair, and his physique could most definitely have been honed chopping wood. His bright blue eyes seem to have taken on the colour of the sea.
“Here comes my deckhand Carla,” he says, nodding towards a slim dark girl walking towards them. “She doesn’t speak any English but is very strong.”
“Sounds ideal,” whispers Rupert to Tom.
“Carla and I will arrange all your meals but we will sleep in the ports when we can as the boat is only big enough for four. When we can’t get onshore we will camp out on the deck. There are not too many rules, the obvious safety ones of course, and obedience when I need it from you. Capice?”
Everyone nods in agreement. Carla approaches Massimo, kisses him hello, and acknowledges the assembled group. They say something in Italian before Massimo announces it’s time to set sail.
“Do you remember the last time we were on a boat together Tom?” says Rupert as they take off their shoes before stepping on board. “It was that holiday with my parents just after A Levels. We were 19.”
Tom nods. “Yes, I do, we were in Croatia.”
“That’s right,” says Rupert, walking on to the boat to make room for the others behind him. “My parents had some awful argument and my father flew back home?”
Tom nods and the two men move towards the bow along the smooth, sun-bleached wooden deck, so smooth it looks like it’s been sanded down with a nail file.
“I still have no idea what it was about, they wouldn’t say, I expect it was the same old thing, you know, my father forcing her to send me away to prep school so young,” Rupert adds, looking up at the cliffs above them. “Check out that house,” he points at a white mansion in the middle of the cliff. “It looks like a bird’s nest, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” says Tom, thankful for the chance to get Rupert off the subject of the boat trip. He does know what the argument between his parents all those years ago was about. “It belonged to the American writer Gore Vidal.”
Rupert looks blank. Tom laughs.
“Still reading a lot are you, Bear?”
“Don’t have much time for books sadly, too busy making money.”
“Gore Vidal,” Tom continues, “was famous for his polemical style, wit and polished prose. He died a couple of years ago. One of his most famous quotes is ‘It is not enough to succeed, others must fail.’”
“Sounds like our school motto,” interrupts Rupert.
Tom laughs and nods. “He was also gay as a badger.”
“Are badgers gay?” Annika joins them at the bow, with Maria. She is wearing a white linen loose fitting dress, through which a small white bikini is just visible. Maria, who is at least a foot shorter than her, feels dowdy in comparison in her pale pink Zara shorts and a blue T-shirt. Just her luck, she thinks, to be on a cruise with an Amazonian supermodel. She and Rupert make an incredibly glamorous blond couple. They look like something out of an ad for some clean, preppy American clothes brand. They are the sort of people Maria never meets; rich and successful with white teeth and long limbs. And she was happier before she did. Tom seems to sense her discomfort and puts his arm around her. A rare sign of affection, which cheers her up.
“You lot stay up there while we cast off,” shouts Massimo.
The four of them sit down as the boat begins to move. They watch the port of Positano diminish as they head towards the open sea.
The birthday dinner is planned for the following evening at Paestum, an ancient Greek city on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
“En route we will stop in Amalfi to taste the best ice cream this side of Naples,” says Massimo. “Then we will sail through the night, Carla and I will work in shifts, while you sleep. In the morning we will wake up at the Cala degli Infreschi, one of the most stunning places on God’s earth. We should get to Paestum late afternoon.”
Tom is sleeping deeply. Maria doesn’t want to wake him by looking for her bikini so she silently creeps out of their shared bunk, grabs her yellow sarong from the floor and walks up the wooden stairs to the deck. It is mid-May and probably only around 8 in the morning, but the sun already has proper heat in it. Apricity flows over her like a warm blanket. She squints as she gets used to the bright day and then looks around. She has never seen anywhere so beautiful. They are in a perfectly shaped cove with mountains either side and in front of her a small, perfectly white sandy beach. There is no sign of life, no sound bar the gentle noise of their boat moving in time to the water. Massimo and Carla are both asleep on yoga mats near the bow of the boat. Maria quietly lowers the white wooden ladder, takes off her sarong and climbs into the clear, cold sea. She feels a frisson between freshness and excitement. She has never swum naked before; it gives her a feeling of freedom. She watches her arms reach out through the water, feels her legs push against it to propel her around the boat.
Maria had been working at Hilton Crown Literary Agency for two years. She has been sleeping with her boss for three months. It started as most of these things do, with a late-night pizza after a particularly stressful day negotiating a three-book deal on behalf of one of their authors. The first time she’d met Tom when he joined nine months ago she hadn’t imagined they would end up as lovers, she would have laughed if anyone had told her they would. She loathed the old secretary screwing the boss cliché. But it’s incredible how working closely with someone all day long changes your view of them, how a kind of addiction creeps in, how even though you spend more time with them than anyone else, you find yourself missing them when you’re not together.
Maria swims back to the steps and begins to haul herself out. She has a brief moment of panic when she sees movement from the deck. She hasn’t really thought about how to get back onto the boat, naked.
Luckily it’s Annika, who is wearing only a pink G-string. Maria feels positively overdressed as she wraps her sarong around her wet body.
“Oh my God,” says Annika, looking around. “If you had to draw a picture of the perfect beach then this would be it. Do you think this is where they filmed that Di Caprio film?”
Maria shakes her head, her brown curly hair is wet and the drops from it fall over her shoulders and down her back. “No, that was in Thailand.”
They sit down at the table: Massimo and Carla have started to prepare breakfast. Coffee with hot milk and some Italian biscotti, grapes and slices of melon.
“So how long have you been together with Tom?”
Maria blushes and looks around to make sure no one is listening.
“I’m not really sure you can call it together,” she begins. Tom has never referred to her as his girlfriend. She doesn’t really know where she stands with him. It’s almost as if he’s married, and she’s his mistress, even though she knows he’s single.
“I mean this is the first time I’ve met any of his friends. We just kind of work together and then have sex really, if that makes sense? We don’t really go out like normal couples.”
Annika nods. “So it’s not true love?”
Maria thinks for a moment. “Well, not for him. I mean he does say ‘I love you doing this or that’ but…”
Annika laughs. “There’s a big difference between ‘I love you doing this or that to me’ and ‘I love you’. Although I often think even when they’re saying ‘I love you’, the rest of the sentence is silent!”
Maria dunks the biscotti in her coffee. It melts in her mouth, flavours of strong espresso mixed with that long-life milk you get on the continent that back in England would taste hideous but here seems perfectly acceptable.
“How about you and Rupert?”
Annika leans back in her seat and throws her arms behind her head. She really does have the most perfect body. Large, firm breasts and long-limbed frame that doesn’t seem to carry one ounce of fat anywhere.
“I’ve only known him for two weeks,” she says. “I met him at a drinks party. He’s fun, silly name though. And why does Tom call him Bear?”
“It’s after a comic strip character called Rupert Bear. You’d probably recognise him, he always wears the same red jumper and yellow checked trousers with a matching scarf. It’s a name from school.”
“Oh I see. Well anyway I’m only here really to annoy my boyfriend who has gone off on a stag weekend.”
“You have a boyfriend? Does Rupert know that?”
“Yes,” laughs Annika. “Says that’s one of the most attractive things about me. He’ s a bit of a commitment-phobe I think.”
Tom, who emerges from their cabins closely followed by Rupert, interrupts their conversation.
“Last one in is a rotten banana,” he shouts, jumping in before he’s even finished the sentence to ensure he won’t be. Rupert immediately leaps in too. The two women stand on deck watching the men swim around the boat, racing, laughing and chatting like over-excited Labradors who have just discovered the joy of swimming.
“Another day, another Mediterranean paradise,” Rupert says to no one in particular as he walks onto the deck. It is mid-afternoon and they are approaching Paestum.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” says Maria, who is sitting close by with her legs dangling over the edge, looking at the ancient city. “And to think this is how the Greeks would have arrived here back in 450 BC, by boat. They really knew how to pick the best spots, didn’t they?”
Rupert joins her, also dangling his legs over the edge.
“Funny I’ve never met you before,” he says. “Why has Tom been hiding you? You look all right to me!”
Granted she isn’t a looker like Annika, Rupert thinks. She’s rather small and mousey really, but perfectly acceptable, lovely green eyes and a luminous smile. And she has a way of looking at you that makes you feel like you’re the only man in the world.
Maria smiles and looks down. She feels herself blushing. She can’t help feeling shy with Rupert. “We haven’t really been together that long, or rather it’s not really official. It’s all a bit tricky, with work and everything.”
Rupert nods. “Yes, I can understand that.”
“Amazing to think that those temples were built thousands of years ago,” she says, looking up again and changing the subject to one she feels more secure about. What’s the point in everyone else trying to define her relationship with Tom when she can’t even define it herself?
“There’s a famous painting here, called the Diver I think, one of the earliest examples of Greek figure painting.”
Rupert turns to her. “How do you know all this?”
She shrugs and looks down at their four legs: they are all moving to the same rhythm with the boat. “Well, you know all about money, which I don’t. Maybe we know about what we care about?”
“Well everyone cares about money, don’t they?” he says staring at her.
Maria looks up at him, meets his eyes, smiles that engaging smile and shakes her head. “I don’t,” she says quietly.
It takes Maria a few minutes to get used to walking on dry land. Her legs seem rather too big for her body and she can still feel herself swaying in time to the rhythm of the water. Rather like the mother of a newborn still rocking the baby to sleep long after the baby has been put into bed. They are walking through the ancient city of Paestum. She can’t decide how she feels about seeing Rupert and Tom together. She has heard a lot about Rupert of course. Almost every memory Tom has involves him, she feels like she knows him intimately although they have only just met.
The boys are almost too close to each other, it’s as if either she is encroaching on their relationship or Rupert is encroaching on hers with Tom. Of course it is possible to have intimate relationships with more than one person, but she finds the two of them together rather threatening. They have a habit of closing ranks, even when they’re teasing each other: which is most of the time. “Banter” Tom calls it, which drives Maria mad. It’s not banter; it’s just bloody rude.
“You don’t understand,” he said when she mentioned it. “It’s just the way we’ve always been.”
Maybe it’s a public school thing. Maria went to her local comprehensive in Oxford, where banter would have been called bullying.
“It’s a bit like being in Legoland, don’t you think?” says Rupert.
“Bear, please don’t let your intellectual side rule you,” says Tom. “You’ll put us all to shame.”
“No, fuck you,” says Rupert. “I mean in the sense that it’s an ancient world we’re walking through, almost like it’s been recreated for us, like a theme park.”
The women both stick up for him. Rupert always had an ability to make women take his side. Back at prep school he had all the matrons fawning over him. It was one of the most irritating things about him. He was boyishly good looking, even now at 30. They had both been blond when they arrived at school aged eight, now Tom is mousy brown. But by now he’s used to being Rupert’s mousier, slightly uglier sidekick. He always made up for it with his wits.
They walk around the ancient streets visiting the temples of Hera and Neptune. At the amphitheatre they split into two teams and play charades. Other tourists stop to watch as the competition intensifies.
That evening the men swap their shorts and T-shirts for chinos and shirts, and the women wear dresses. Massimo and Carla have prepared the table with a white linen tablecloth and fig-scented candles. There are bottles of Veuve Cliquot cooling in a large silver ice bucket.
“There’s nothing quite as exquisite as that first sip of champagne,” says Rupert, filling their glasses.
“It’s a bit like your first kiss,” says Tom.
“Oh no, my first kiss was awful,” says Maria. “Some spotty youth called David behind the bike shed at school. Such a cliché.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with a cliché,” says Rupert. “If you think about it, things only become clichés because there’s something to them.”
He raises his glass.
“Happy birthday to us,” he says.
“Happy birthday to us,” say Tom, raising his glass to meet Rupert’s.
“Happy birthday to you,” chorus the girls.
“Auguri,” says Massimo, poking his head out from the small kitchen. “Dinner in 15 minutes.”
They start with Pasta Alfredo; fettuccine with a rich creamy sauce. This is followed by grilled turbot and roasted fennel. The pudding is a tiramisu with Tom, Rupert and the number 30 written on top of it in mascarpone cheese.
There is a satisfied silence around the table. Massimo and Carla have done the washing up and gone on shore. There is no longer a horizon; the definition between sky and sea is blurred, everything is dark, just the moon, the stars and the candles on the round table light up the night.
“We have a present for you, Rupert” announces Tom. “Hang on, I’ll go and get it.” He returns less than a minute later with a wooden rectangular box. “It’s from all of us, to say thank you.”
Rupert stands up and takes the box from him. He lifts the lid to reveal a bottle of port.
“It’s from the year of our birth,” he says, investigating the bottle. “How amazing, thanks to all of you.”
He kisses the girls, shakes Tom’s hand and sits down again.
“We’ve had it standing upright for a week,” adds Tom hopefully. “To allow the sediment to settle.”
“Great stuff,” says Rupert. “I’ll enjoy this on my own, once I get home.”
There is a moment’s silence.
“OK only joking, let’s open it.”
Everyone cheers. Tom goes off to find some suitable glasses. Rupert carefully uncorks the bottle.
“We really need a decanter if we’re going to do this properly,” he says.
A parcel is brought up from under the table.
“Let me guess…” laughs Rupert, opening the box with a decanter in it.
“Is it called port because naval officers used to serve it from port to port?” says Tom.
“Which way is that?” asks Annika.
“Clockwise,” says Rupert.
“No, it’s named after the town it comes from in Northern Portugal, Oporto,” says Maria.
“Honestly Maria, where do you come up with all this knowledge?” asks Rupert.
Maria smiles. “Oh some book or other we sold a couple of years ago about the history of alcohol.”
Rupert carefully decants the port. “The tradition is that I serve the person to my right,” he pours some port into Annika’s glass. “And then I pass the decanter to my left,” he says passing the decanter on to Maria.
“And what do I do?” she says. “I’m way out of my comfort zone.”
Tom puts his arm around her. “You do the same,” he says, kissing her on the side of her head.
The port travels around the table.
“I propose a toast,” says Tom, standing up with his glass in his hand. “To the next thirty years.”
They all touch glasses.
“We’ll be sixty,” says Rupert. “Do you think we’ll be too old to celebrate on this boat?”
“I wonder what we’ll all be doing,” says Tom, taking another sip of port.
“Whether we’ll be married,” says Rupert. “Maybe even divorced by then.”
Tom laughs. “Yes I predict that you, Bear, will have been married at least twice by then and be on to your third wife: each of them younger by ten years than the last. And all of them a direct replica of Mattie the Australian matron we both fell madly in love with at school.”
They all laugh.
“I hope not,” says Rupert. “One wife is bad enough, but three…Now, Annika, do you know who the Bishop of Norwich is?”
“I’ve no fucking idea,” she replies. “What the hell has he got to do with anything?”
“He’s an awfully good fellow, but he never passes the port,” Rupert and Tom both shout in unison and roar with laughter.
“Don’t worry,” says Maria to Annika who is looking utterly bemused, “it’s just another stupid port tradition. You’re not meant to ask someone to pass the decanter, so it’s a way of alerting the person closest to it that you would like it. Though why they have to involve the Bishop of Norwich I’ve no idea.”
“If I do ever get married,” says Rupert rather loudly. “I want to marry someone as clever as Maria.”
“Hear, hear,” says Tom.
“Yes, so do I,” says Annika, raising her glass. “To Maria.”
The three of them toast Maria, who blushes and smiles: she has never had so much attention, or come to think of it so much port.
“Thank you,” she says, raising her glass. “And thank you Rupert, for inviting us all. I’ve had the best time ever.”
“I’m so glad you could come,” says Rupert. “Let’s hope Tom doesn’t keep you hidden away when we get back to civilisation.”
“Funny you should call London civilisation,” Maria replies. “I can’t think of anywhere more civilised than here.” Maria pushes the thought away that tomorrow it’s back to reality. Back to, if she’s honest, a dysfunctional relationship that seems to be going nowhere. Maybe it’s time to take proactive action and end it.
“Let’s drink to civilisation,” says Tom, “wherever we find it.”
After another half an hour of drinking port Annika’s head starts to spin, which she takes as a sign to go to bed. She bids the birthday boys goodnight and walks unsteadily down the ladder to the bunks. The remaining three decide to lie on the deck looking at the stars. Maria nestles between the two men. It is around midnight. There is no light pollution at all. The Mediterranean sky above them is much like the one the ancient Greeks would have fallen asleep under when they lived in Paestum.
After a while Maria closes her eyes and is half asleep when she feels Tom take her hand. His touch is warm and secure.
“I’m off to bed,” he says. “See you in a bit.”
She doesn’t open her eyes, she’s so comfortable: she doesn’t want to move: she doesn’t want anything to disrupt this perfect moment. She hears Tom get to his feet and walk towards the cabins. But the hand that is holding hers is still there.
The following morning Rupert goes into Tom’s cabin to tell him what has happened, but Tom already knows. He went up to check on Maria when dawn broke and saw them together.
“I’m so sorry,” says Rupert. “I didn’t mean for this to happen and if you mind, then obviously I’ll back off.”
“I don’t mind at all, Bear,” says Tom.
“And I want you to know that this is really not about having what you have, about winning a race or anything. I know sometimes things get a bit out of hand between us, that competitive thing we have, but this is not the case with Maria.”
“It’s an odd thing,” says Rupert, trying to look contrite but actually beaming. “It’s the first time I’ve ever met anyone who makes me think about anything other than making money and being the best at everything. She seems to have found a side of me even I didn’t know.”
Tom nods. “She’s a lovely girl.”
Rupert hugs him awkwardly before walking out of the cabin. Physical contact between the boys has always been brief and slightly strained. No one at a boarding school wanted to be accused of being gay. It’s odd that to this day they can’t give each other a proper hug,
Tom sits down on his bunk and puts his head in his hands. He does mind. But of course he had to say he didn’t. He was getting ready to commit to Maria. He was beginning to feel like she was the one.
He thinks back to their Croatian boat trip 11 years ago. Back then it was the turn of another man, Rupert’s father, to discover a relationship that had blossomed during the cruise.
He had walked onto the deck at 3am to find his wife Lucy kissing Tom. It was the first of many kisses Lucy would give Tom. In fact from that day more than 11 years ago she never stopped kissing him. And until he met Maria, his relationship with Lucy had prevented him from getting close to anyone else.
Tom closes his bags and walks up the ladder into the morning sunshine. Maria, Rupert and Annika are having one last swim before they all have to go back to London. Massimo walks up to him.
“It’s been fun, eh?” he says, shaking his hand. “Next week we race her, are you sure you don’t want to stay on? You’re not a bad deckhand.”
Tom smiles at him.
“No thanks,” he says. “I think I’ve had enough racing.”